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Isis, Lilith, Gello: Three Ladies of Darkness
The following is an essay by Alejandro Arturo González Terriza which discusses the beings Isis, Lilith and Gello.
The aim of this paper is to take a look into the darkness: a darkness, as we'll see at the end, probably biased, which wraps the apparent firmness and transparency of some religious concepts about authority, and from which we'd like to retrieve three almost clandestine stories; or maybe, as we'll propose, three versions or stages of the same story. As the title goes: Isis, Lilith, Gello are the names of three women of very similar background, which oppose the divine Law, and make firm against it a will and a magical power of their own.
In a famous passage from Psalms (90: 5-6), the Bible talks about «that which moves in the darkness», negotium perambulans in tenebris. Certainly, any God creature feels that out of reach from divine light, from the Light which emanate from the Creator, and that (according to some theologies) is His very nature, there move and act some things: some shape-shifting and name-shifting creatures, which have been used to frighten man, but which have also expressed his eagerness for freedom and independence from the authoritarian and vigilant god.
Opposing to the autonomic, fatherly and fighting God, an image has been dreamt of a most beautiful woman, goddess of lust and magic, and possessor of power words which submit and force the very power of God. Amongst the many exiles from Heaven (their name is legio), she's the one which, most persistently, has passed through the darkness, getting near to human ear (and bed); and, though hidden or censored, her memory remains in our mythical heritage.
In Hebrew mythology, the name this character receives is that of Lilith (related by Creuzer 1841: II, 524-5 with Greek Eileíthyia, Ilithya, the birth goddess), first Adam wife in later texts, pursuer of children who have not been circumcised yet, and seductress of men which sleep with no women and/or with no moral principles. Excluded from Genesis, the tales about Lilith have survived to us mainly in late sources: e.g. midrash compiled in the XIIth century (Numbers Rabba) or even kabbalistic comments on Pentateuch compiled in the XVIIth century (Yalqut Reubeni).
Nevertheless, those who hasten to say, perhaps in consideration of monotheistic dogma, that Lilith is a folk, almost decadent, late creation, should remember that something quite close to her name already appears in the second millennium before Christ. As it is known, it is in a Sumerian tablet, which is part of the Gilgamesh cycle: the story of Gilgamesh and the willow. There, a character named Lillake appears as one of the evil spirits which squatter the tree of the love goddess, Inanna, and which the hero must eject. Another Lilith-prototype, Lilitu, is a star actress, of first rate, in the corpus of Babylonian spells, where she appears as a lust demoness. The incurable patients, which get wasted with no remedy, are called in these spells the bridegrooms of Lilitu, and they recall to us the victims of vampyrism, which, under the stress of her parasitic kisses, languish slowly, until they join their lover in the bosom of death.
This Babylonian pre-Lilith goes soon to the Hebrews, which made her their own enthusiastically, and coined her definite name: in fact, she appears in the Bible. Not in Genesis, but in just one passage of prophetic literature: inside Isaiah visions of Edom (Is. 34, 14), country punished by God, Lilith appears as one of the many evil demons which take their place in the desert countryside cursed by God:
there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest. As may be seen, the passage is parallel (not to say: it follows closely) the alluded description in Sumerian tablet:
In its midst (of the Inanna tree) the maid Lillake built her house. In both cases, Lilith is a nefarious squatter; and, in spite of the chronological distance (Isaiah text is roughly contemporary of Homer, VIIIth century before Christ), both verses seems to belong to poetical traditions very close in their formulae.
Having established the noble background of Lilith, let's stop to consider the tale of her stay in Paradise, as it's preserved in the Alphabet of Ben Sira:
According to one of the versions of Creation, in the Sixth Day God made Adam, but Eve did not yet exist. God made Adam, and then set him to name every animal, and when they passed before him in pairs, male and female, he felt jealous of their loves, and tried to get satisfaction himself, coupling with each female creature (interesting passage which, in some way, gives reason to the birth of those fantastical creatures which Borges was fond of: hybrid with human torso, but ass or horse or goat legs).
Such experience, anyway, didn't satisfy him; and so he went to the Creator, claiming: «Every creature but I has a proper mate!».
God heard Adam's claim, and formed then Lilith, the first woman, following the procedure already tested with the first man: but, instead of pure dust, he used this time sediment and filth.
Adam and Lilith were not a happy couple. When he wished to lie with her, Lilith alleged that the recumbent position he wanted was denigrating to her. «Why must I lay beneath you?» -she asked-, «I also was made from dust, and am therefore your equal». As Adam tried to force her, Lilith, in a rage, uttered the magical name of God, rose into the air and left him. (Theatrical and magnificent fleeing which recalls the end of Euripides' Medea).
Adam complained to God: «I have been deserted by my helpmeet». God made at once a command, formed by angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangeloph, and sent them with the order of bringing Lilith back. The angels toured the orb, and found her at last beside the Red Sea, a region plentiful of lascivious demons: Lilith matched them happily, and gave birth to lilim (children made in her image) at a more than hundred per day ratio. «Come back to Adam without delay» -the angels told her- «or else we'll drown you!». Lilith asked: «How can I come back to Adam and live like an honest housewife after my stay beside the Red Sea». «You'll die if you refuse!», replied they. «And how can I die» -asked Lilith again- «when God has ordered me to take charge of every newborn children: boys up to the eight day, that of circumcision, and girls up to the twentieth day? None the less, if I ever see your names or likeness displayed in an amulet above a newborn child, I promise to spare it».
Undoubtedly surprised with this agreement with God, which they knew not, the angels agreed with Lilith's conditions and, without achieving their mission, came back to Empireum. As the only reprisal, to please the unsatisfied Adam, God punished Lilith by making one hundred of her demon children perish daily; and it's said that, if she could not destroy a human infant, because of the angelic amulet, she would spitefully turn against her.
Lilith story is specially appealing, as it's something like «the Black Book of Genesis», the true story of what happened to first man and woman in the beginning. While Eve admits that she's inferior to man and submit her fate to him, Lilith considers herself superior, and distances herself from his authority, fleeing from Paradise, and getting so free also of the terrible curse of Fall. While Adams gets mortal and perish, Lilith remains immortal for ever; and, opposite Eve, who obeys the double male authority of her husband and her Father, and which has been made secondarily from male flesh, Lilith, which is as ancient (or more) than Adam, refuses to accept machismo (or phalocratism, as they say in Greek) in any way: not only the missionary position that her husband applies for, but even the commands of God through his angels. In spite of the boasts of these, she stands still, and, though with statutory restraints, keeps on with her temptation job.
Anyway, leaving aside the feminine and even feminist value of this indomitable woman, the most fascinating trait of this story is, as far as I can see, just what it doesn't say: the secret that allows Lilith flee from Paradise and, later on, to even disobey the divine commands. The question is: how did Lilith know the hidden name of God, that name which God didn't want to reveal to Moses, shielding himself with paraphrases (Ex. 3, 14), and which is so important in Kabbalah: the name of infinite power which was written in Solomon's Seal, according to the Talmud, and which gave him power above all the demons?
Nothing in Hebrew texts lets us guess the answer to this question: and so it seems to me that we must move some centuries back, to move some pages back, in the great Book of Stories which is Comparative Mythology, to find the answer to this question: how did the magician Goddess, the one who moves through the darkness, manage to get the Great God name, and gain so power and independence from Him?
And that kind of story is the one that provides us a curious Egyptian text: a Hieratic papyrus from the period of Ramsees III (c. 1200 BC). It's the text known as The secret name of Ra. I'm deeply indebted to my friend, the Egyptologist Antonio Hernández, who translated it for me from Egyptian into Spanish (though, of course, any eventual error in the interpretation of the myth, and in the re-translation of the text from Spanish into English, are only my own).
The text is also usually titled as The legend of Ra and Isis, but its Egyptian name, long and euphonic, is the one that you can read:
Formula of the divine God, the being that creates himself, who made heaven and earth, and the breath of life, the fire, the Gods, the men, the beasts, the cattle, the serpents, the birds, the fishes. The king of men and gods at equal, that the eternal cycles (he has them) for years, the one with many names, so that he is not known: the gods don't know him.
In this text Ra, the supreme god, is a venerable god, the Lord of the Universe: and he extends his authority above all beings created by him just by the power of his name, that even gods ignore. But he's also a venerable old man: as the Egyptian text says, not without humor:
The divine being (Ra) had gone old, he wrinkled his mouth, threw his spittle over the earth, and his spittle fell down on earth.
As for Isis, she was a woman versed in words, a powerful magician who preferred the company of gods to that of humans. Isis retrieves the decadent spittle of Ra, which soaks the earth, and, taking dust in her hand, she makes with it a magical serpent, which she puts on the route that Ra (the Sun God) makes every day and every night, from dawn to sunset, and from sunset to dawn. When he passed through that way, the serpent bites him, and, receiving the serpent bite, the god is victims of the most terrible anxiety: his limbs shake, the flame of life flees from them, and the inoculated poison makes him sweat copiously. The gods asked Ra which is it, what has happened, and he says he finds no words to answer about it: A deadly thing has bitten me. My hearts knows it, but my eyes haven't seen it. My hand has made it not. I never felt such a pain. There is no pain greater than this, (nor I know) who has made this to me. ...It isn't fire, it isn't water, but I'm colder than water, hotter than fire.
In that time of sorrow for Ra, most opportune (and whistling, we are tempted to say), came Isis with her power, with her breath of life and her magical formulae, which drive away the illness, her words that make live again the throats of those who languish. And she said: «What is it, oh my divine father? What's up? A serpent has inoculated you with the sickness. One of your creatures has raised its head against you. I'll knock it down with my efficient spells.
In return, of course, Isis demands to know His Name. Ra tries to resist in vain: the poison doesn't leave its way, and Ra's heart is about to leave him. At the very doors of death, he gives up: »I do consent to be investigated by Isis, and that my name passes from my body to her body». In a extreme of cunning, worthy of the worst femme fatale, Isis takes advantage of the situation and manages that Ra promise to give his two eyes to her son Horus; and only after taking away from him his two greatest treasures (his name and his eyes), she recites then her spell and save the God Father of everything from death.
»Certainly, the great god has got his name taken away. Ra lives, the poison dies, and vice-versa. A man son of woman lives and the poison dies». This is what Isis said, the Great, Lady of the Gods, who knows Ra by his own name.
The remarkable thing of the text is its practical, magical and ritual, nature: just as Ra gets cured by Isis, so any man bitten by a serpent will get healed after this text has been recited. The text is itself a magical formula of proven effectiveness. To be absolutely satisfactory, the spell must be recited over the images of the protagonist gods: Isis, Tum (the evening sun, which is the old Ra) and Horus.
Let's pick up the epithet: «She who knows God by his name». Isis... and also Lilith. Taking the Lilith story from this approach, we understand better the nature of the secret agreement of the demoness with YHVH, the influence on him provided by her knowledge of his true name. And, as we compared the fleeing of Lilith with the one of Medea, it will not be out of point to recall how Medea flees also with the help of her relative, the Sun God, which is the grandfather of the great lineage of witches (Medea, Circe) which brighten up the life of Greek heroes.
But there are still more stories, at least one more. If, in some ways, the story of Isis and Ra provides the prologue that explains the triangle Lilith-YHVH-Adam, the third story we're going to consider, the one of the demoness Gello and her fight against the saints Sinisius, Sines and Sinodorus, is its natural continuation. Having been made the Lady of Darkness into a destroyer spirit of non-cataloged children, it takes the authority of three saints (tracings, even in their names, of the three talmudic angels) to defeat her provisionally.
Gello's name and character is pretty ancient. She was mentioned by Greek poetess Sappho, who commented on one of her rivals that she was more fond of children (lit. more pedophilic) than Gello (fr. 168A Voigt). Indeed Gello was a maiden from Lesbos who died leaving no descendants, and who came back every night from death to play with the children she had not brought up, and taking them in her arms into the darkness.
The belief in this child-stealing maiden lives on in Byzantine period, with some morphological transformations: Gello becomes Gylu, and becomes a demoness instead of a phantom. There is a whole literary genre of plegaries or legends of Saint Sinisius, which tell how this saint defeats and destroys this enemy of children: the most interesting one is the Byzantine text known as Apotrofé tes miarás kai akazártu Gyllús: «Averting of the wicked and impure Gylu». It was edited in the Greek Library of Sathas (Sathas 1876: 573-5). The contents are, again, a story and a spell at the same time.
We are told that, in times of emperor Trajan there lived a woman, named Meletine, whose six children were robbed by the wicked and impure Gylu. When she gets pregnant for the seventh time, she builds a fortified tower, and, locked up there with twelve damsels, she gives birth to her child.
One of those days the saints Sinisius, Sines and Sinodorus, brothers of Meletine, get by to pay her a visit. Meletine refuses to open the door, fearing Gylu, but she ends giving in to fraternal love and give them free way. She should never have done it! Just as the saint knights cross the ditch, the wicked Gylu, having taken the form of a little mouse, takes the chance to jump in, and, that very night, already inside the fortress, annihilates the seventh child.
There follows, as we may well expect, a scene of family reproaches. «Didn't I tell you that I had bred a child and feared to open?» The saints, a bit ashamed, pray to God Father, who sends an angel to them, with the command to pursue Gylu as far as Lybanum (all this scene recalls closely the analogous mission commanded by YHVH to the angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangeloph).
The knights leave in search of Gylu, who, when she sees them, throws herself into the sea (remember the Red Sea). Saint Sinisius captures her on time and, torturing her, demands her to confess which God she adores, which power she has and, above all, to return alive the seven children of Meletine. «That,» replies Gylu, »is impossible, unless I drink from Meletine's breasts.» St. Sinodorus leaves at once for his sister's tower, and comes back with the requested nectar. The demoness drinks then, and she brings up each of the seven children, with their vital constants perfect.
Gylu's next words sound familiar to us: «Saints of God, do not stone me and I swear, by the circle of Sun and the horns of the Moon, that wherever your name should be written and your command be read, and my twelve and a half names, I will not dare to approach that house, but I will flee three thousand miles away from there.»
It's in this point that the parallelism with Lilith story gets extreme: the points of contact between the three mythical sequences (Egyptian, Hebrew and Byzantine) are much too solid to be rated as chance.
In all three cases, we have texts which tell a story, set in illo tempore, but which have also a practical aim: magical texts which are used to prevent the attack of evil, or to get free from its effects: the attack of Lilith or Gylu, the bite of the serpent made by Isis. And in all three a fundamental role is played by the magic name, though with an remarkable evolution.
In Hebrew and Egyptian cases (which have the most ancient version), it's the magical name stolen from God that has the main value: Isis gets by a trick the magical name of God; Lilith's got it (we don't know how) and uses it to flee from Paradise. Knowledge of divine name serves so as a guarantee of independence from male authority.
As regards the duality of good/evil, Isis' case is ambivalent: she's the one who sends evil, but she's also the one who cures from it, just as the medieval witches did evil, but also undid it. This ambivalent quality of the Goddess tends to disappear as a more misogynist scheme gets imposed.
In Lilith's story, the magical name theme already works both ways: we still have (unexplained) the fact that Lilith knows God's name, but as a counterbalance it appears the element of the three angels' names, which has power to keep her away. Wherever a talisman with these names appears, she will respect it and keep the distance. The power of God commands respect, and in the end it wins over female magic; but this keeps its defiant independence.
In the Byzantine text (the most recent one), this evolution has reached its peak: the theme of the demoness knowing the name of God has disappeared completely. On the other hand, the prophylactic value of the talismans with the three angels (made into saints) does remain. And it's added that the talismans need, to be effective, to have also the twelve and a half secret names of Gylu , that she confesses to the saints. So, it's now the Goddess who, by losing her name, becomes defenseless before the Male Enemy, and must move back under his authority.
Many more things could be told. But I think it's enough with this glance into the darkness to show that there are paradigms, not much known, that reveal a autonomous and fascinating view of womanhood. Enemies of socially established female status, of matrimony and motherhood, grandmothers in the end of Romantic vamps (of Carmila, or Dracula brides), Isis, Lilith, Gello, the tree ladies of the darkness, counterbalance and complete the usual scheme of Eve and Pandora, providing us a less radically biased image.
- Cf. Horatius, Ars Poetica, 340, where we are told how the children eaten by Lamia were extracted alive from their bellies.
- Ironically, as the egyptologist Antonio Hernández was kind to point out to me, Sinisius means exactly son of Isis (an etymology mot previously established). So, the vanquisher of the demoness turn out to be her own offspring.
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